Since salvation history began, God’s way with souls—and His sense of humor—have not changed. He has always chosen the most seemingly unfit to accomplish His plan, from Moses, who pleaded that he was too “slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) to be God’s messenger, to St. Faustina Kowalska, who had no money, education or power, but was sent to bring the Divine Mercy message to the world. Most people are never called to do anything so great, but even in less significant cases, God often manifests His power through apparently unfit instruments. One such case was my spring break mission trip to Cuzco, Peru, during my sophomore year at Christendom College. The Holy Spirit moved in me, despite my many natural aversions to the experience, and used me on the trip to show His love.
When my parents first learned that I wanted to go on a mission trip, they were pleased but surprised, and with good reason. Whatever words might be used to describe me, “adventurous” would hardly be high on the list. It might not quite be true that I “never did anything unexpected or had any adventures,” but I might be compared to a hobbit, one of the little people who inhabit J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I like a routine, familiar places and people, and a reasonable predictability in life. A year earlier, making the transition from home life to college had been a slow and excruciating process. How could I now elect to trade a visit home for a week in South America?
The answer is primarily a small miracle of God’s grace. In the year between my arrival at college and my decision to go to Peru, He had helped me to overcome much of my natural anxiety and be more open to “adventures” for His glory. I chose to go partly because so many others raved about the mission trips being wonderful experiences, but ultimately because it seemed a good way to serve God and I felt that He wanted it of me. I chose the Cuzco trip partly because I had no desire to go either to a hot climate or to the Bronx, but also because I felt especially drawn to the work: helping nuns care for children in a school and orphanage.
Thus I found myself in the company of some of the college’s most adventurous extroverts, who may have been as attracted to the unfamiliar, unpredictable experience as to the charitable service. I, however, was far from sharing their undampened enthusiasm. All sorts of doubts continued to plague me: What would this trip be like? How many things could go wrong, all the way in a Third World country? How awkward might it be to try to interact with people who didn’t speak my language, especially children? What if I wasn’t generous enough when the time came? No one could fully set me at ease about these questions.
I would like to say that these fears belonged only to anticipation, and melted away as the actual experience began, but I would be lying. My anxieties actually intensified as we arrived in Cuzco and began our week of missionary life. Even before we had begun to do anything, I found my nerves protesting simply because I was in a strange country and culture, where I didn’t know what to expect even from the food or the bathrooms. No one else appeared to feel the same way; after all, nothing about our surroundings so far was especially strange. Everything, however, reminded me of where we were and what we were doing. The Sisters hosting us were entirely sweet and gracious, and had prepared very decent quarters for us, but even this hospitality did not reassure my hobbit pysche.
As our work commenced, the stress increased till it reached its peak. After spending the first day in a remote mountain village, some of our group were raving about having had the “best day ever” while I had spent most of the day feeling hot and short of breath, due to the altitude, and troubled by the dirt and poverty in which the villagers lived. I felt as if the other girls’ excitement were a judgment on my nervousness. The first visit to the orphanage introduced new difficulties: we had to wear hospital-like plastic gowns, which aroused my fear of germs; I felt foolish not knowing what to do with very little ones; and the sight of severely deformed or retarded children proved to be unnerving. That evening, I kept thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this every day for the next week!” This thought became even more painful when I saw how generously my fellow missionaries were serving, while I, who had come so far to do the same, seemed on the verge of a breakdown.
Even then, however, I realized that God was doing with me what He had done with many others: He was working through the least naturally fitted person in order to show the power of His grace. His chosen servants had always been those with the least capacity in the world’s eyes, like St. Joan of Arc or the young visionaries of Fatima. I was, again, like Tolkien’s hobbit heroes, who were small and simple people with no particular skill or power, but were called to undertake adventures seemingly beyond them and found themselves able to do so. Furthermore, our Lord knew my nervous personality, and did not expect me to embrace this adventure as easily or enthusiastically as some of my companions. He had brought me to the beginnings of this work; He would not refuse me the necessary grace.
Indeed, by the week’s end, I was sure that the trip had been more than worthwhile. The days after the first two, while they were not without struggle, anxiety or frustration, also brought blessing and joy. All the things that had caused my anxiety still remained, but as I, or the Holy Spirit in me, continued with our little tasks anyway, I began to find a special kind of happiness. I had worried about being inadequate, but all those to whom we came—the villagers, the Sisters, the children—were invariably delighted to have us with them, and showed their great appreciation in words and expressions of hospitality. No one seemed to mind that I was not accomplishing much in feeding a disabled child a few bits of rice, or trying with limited success to keep a temperamental toddler happy or out of trouble. As we left, I still felt that I was not very competent and had done next to nothing, but I could not be too distressed after seeing the children’s bubbling delight and being hugged by one after another.
Gradually, I understood that what mattered was not so much our usefulness as our proof of love. We were often achieving little on the material level; the tasks we did, such as spoon-feeding disabled children or watching toddlers, were generally things that the Sisters could do better than we. Our presence, however, made a difference not because of any particular work, but simply by itself. The children in the Sisters’ care and the people in the mountains lived in such a remote, isolated world, all but unnoticed by the more prominent, prosperous areas of the world. Tourists were, and are, not uncommon in Cuzco, but these visitors come for the spectacle and fascination of the foreign city and culture, perhaps never seeing the orphans or the poor families who cannot care for their children and so entrust them to the Sisters. Peru is not conspicuous for war or tyranny, so its poor people are easily and often overlooked. Our presence, therefore, gave the Sisters and their charges the happiness of knowing that someone cared. They welcomed us with wonderful joy and gratitude, not because we eased their need for bread or money, but because we brought something of much deeper importance: a demonstration of God’s love for them.
While I could not claim, as some could, that the week we spent in Peru was the most enjoyable of my life, it was nevertheless one of the most powerful and valuable experiences that I can remember, for which I am immensely grateful to God and to all who made it possible. It proved to me the power of God’s grace to do more in us than we can do naturally. Each person reading these pages, if he has not already been called to do something that goes against his inclinations, will eventually be so called. However, we need not fear where the Holy Spirit might be leading us, because ultimately all that He asks is generous love, however the circumstances may require it. No matter what fears or natural ineptitudes burden us, we can always love; we can always make a gift of ourselves. If we only show sincere love and obedient, confident trust, the grace of God, Whose power is much greater than our weakness, will prosper everything else.